So, perhaps “want” is the most important word in my title. It points directly to the appetitive dimension of human nature and motivation. And when we consider the more nuanced differences between want and desire, and seeking and striving, we discover the source, meaning, and power of such aspirational themes, how they shape our identity, influence our actions, and produce joy or perpetual restlessness.
Simple Definitions Reveal Complexity
To want is to desire, but in a specific sense. It’s a simpler, object-specific desire for something we do not have. Wants arise and are satisfied or not through our acquisition of the wanted object, i.e., chocolate, a car, a pay raise, a promotion, a date, tickets to a concert – things that are external to us as persons. Wants come and go, one after another. They’re discrete felt needs of limited duration.
Desires that live beyond the satiation of any one want, that go to our sense adequacy and well-being as a person… Well, that’s a different thing. It’s the full and proper meaning of desire as distinct from want. Its aim is to extinguish deeply felt needs for completion. Its intensity is a craving to fill a hole within us. Its intensity can become desperate, obsessive, especially as it grows outside conscious awareness.
Risks of Confusion
It is in this sense that in Buddhism and in some Western religions, desire can be seen as the root of all suffering and moral failure. It is in this sense also that desire can lead to inauthentic living. For rather than focusing on being, we surrender to an anxious, acquisitive, alienating mode of life called having. We mistake parts for the whole of life. We mistake stuff for growth and self-actualization.
So, want and desire run amok can lead away from love, virtue, growth, and happiness. But they’re also inherent to our nature. They energize our being and need not run amok, lead to harm and unhappiness. When we attend to and notice the wants and desires that define our appetite and actions, we can choose to examine them with an attitude of curiosity. We can learn!
Wisdom from Reflection
Something as ostensibly practical and compartmentalized as the question of whether or not I really want a career in management can lead to more fundamental questions. Notice how these questions arise from troubled feelings, in moments of suffering. Wants and desire are felt and acted on long before they consciously or cognitively known. Their life predates our verbal and cognitive abilities.
Some Classic Wisdom
The words of a famous 17th century philosopher, Spinoza, are relevant here: “The endeavor, wherewith everything endeavors to persist in its own being, is nothing else but the actual essence of the thing in question.” (From his Ethics) Our vital endeavors to be can run amok. We are imperfect creatures. and we are moved by two kinds of emotion according to Spinoza, those linked to actions and passions.
Actions are purposive endeavors, conscious and guided by considered judgment. Passions are aroused or excited by things and experience external to us. They may arouse positive feelings, elevated emotions of wonder, compassion, and love. However, when they operate without the mediation of mind, they can also arouse baser fears and reactive acts of avoidance or aggression.
It is our relationship to the feelings that arise in life that is most vital. Thus, asking what I want and why I want it raises to consciousness the aims and meaning that our strivings hold for us. What is it that seems so important? What is it that this desire signals about me and what I need? In this way, some desires are extinguished (as false goods), others reframed as wants or transformed into something less intense.
We now more easily appraise the relative importance of the values that underlie our appetitive strivings. We gain emotional freedom and make informed choices about life goals and career goals. Our strivings are aligned – and they’ll need to be repeatedly aligned – with aims of virtue and happiness. Always more difficult in reality than in thought, and always made easier in conversation with those we trust.